A 21st Century Imperative: Intro Cont. – Barriers

The trouble with schools are the barriers they face when implementing radical change.   In my last blog I kicked off on yet another unapologetic rant; this time about the need for schools to radically change if they are to meet the needs of learners in the 21st Century.  If we don’t, I went on to argue, we run the risk of becoming obsolete.     In this blog, I’ll consider what I believe are some of the barriers that prevent us from implementing change.  

Go back and look at the last blog, I finished with a list of things Marcus Orlovsky points out that schools did over a hundred years ago, and still do today.  Do an image search on school classrooms around 1900, now jump forward 25 years.  Keep doing this up to the present day.  What do you notice?  How many changes did you spot?   I spotted three (well two actually, the third one is an assumption):

1. We don’t wear scary black cloaks (actually some still do);

2. There is more technology in the rooms;

3. We don’t hit the kids any more. 

Yes, there have been masses of research into pedagogy and effective schooling, but everything seems to be designed to fit into the same construct; that basic idea of what we all believe schools are.   I cited Sir Ken Robinson last time, and at the risk of people thinking I’m on some sort of commission, I want to agree again with his description of the ‘hypnosis’ we are under when he describes the reluctance to change.   I would elaborate on this by suggesting that this ‘hypnosis’ is brought about through an unconscious, well-embedded acceptance of our whole education system, and supporting institutions.  Whereas multi-nationals across the world have continuous change built into their fabric or else face extinction, the world of education has no space or capacity for real change to take place. In fact, it has several safety mechanisms built in to prevent any change from happening. Take for example a typical high school teacher’s career:

  • It begins when they start school.   They pass through it, do well in the system and go on to university.  The system has worked well for them so far.
  • Although there are now many vocationally orientated courses, our universities are still based primarily on the acquisition of knowledge (In a time when it is easily accessible to everyone). The future teacher graduates, reinforcing their perception that the system is a good one, and with the belief that they have become a subject expert.
  • They join a teacher-training course which still focuses on teachers as individuals and not as collaborative teams, and so re-enforces the notion that teachers practice their craft alone in their classroom.
  • This course also reinforces the notion that their subject is of prime importance within the education system, by requiring them to specialise in the area they have a degree in and to become a ‘subject teacher’.
  • The few idealists who may have slipped through these barriers and who arrive in their first school, buzzing with revolutionary ideas, will soon come across that teacher in the staff room, or maybe their head of department who convinces them that their new weird and wonderful ideas, will only cause behavioural problems.   “And if you have behavioural problems in your class, it’ll go against you.”  And so that one-time idealist will accept that maybe they are wrong – “after all, the system did work for me” they say to themselves.
  • Those who write (The journalists) politicians, they all did well in the system.   They can see the need for change, but not, as Sir Ken would say, ‘revolutionary change’.  And so, the status quo is maintained, and the vast majority of students do not leave school equipped to flourish (I’ll explain this more fully in follow-up blogs).

More controversial perhaps is the possibility that we put the needs of the school and its staff before the needs of the 21st Century child.  For example:

  • The way we timetable suits a very regimented industrial model, which demands that everyone should be in specific places at specific times.  There is no flexibility built in.   While I agree it is good to develop the habits of punctuality and timekeeping in young people, and so a certain degree of timetabling is essential.   However, consider the child who becomes absorbed in something and wants/needs longer to work on the problem or task.  In the workplace, a reasonable employer would allow the person with this need to see it through (especially if the outcome is positive for the company) 
  • It is easier for teachers to stay within the safety blanket of their own subject, than become masters of pedagogy and facilitators of multi-disciplined projects.  When their specialism is called upon, then they should become a resource for the pupil to use, just as they would research and use resources to learn new things in their working lives.   And we all love and know those subjects, they’ve been with us for over a hundred years, and we’ve done alright by them. Haven’t we?  Let’s face it, those subjects are in our Genes. 
  • A teacher feels under pressure to get through their syllabus, there isn’t the space in their schemes of work to allow for multidiscipline approaches.   Be honest here – has anyone actually come up with a ‘literacy across the curriculum’ model that is actually effective?  Or numeracy?  I’ve been part of the most amazing literacy training sessions for staff, involving unusual, exciting activities, applicable to all subjects.  Give the training and resources to, let’s say the geography teacher (I could pick any subject).  Week one, all’s going well, lots of great literacy activities going on.  Give it a few more weeks, and it soon drops off, as the pressures of the Geography syllabus take over.  Subjects, unfortunately, have walls built around them and it does not suit the school or the teacher to break them down.  But how relevant are they?
  • Our exam system doesn’t help us, but I mentioned this one in my last blog.  The spoon feeding that takes place due to exam pressure, to ensure the acquisition of subject knowledge, is certainly not conducive to the needs of the child.  It’s easier for us to teach in this way, it makes it easier to assess progress, and it’s far more objective.   However, consider how much of your Year 9 (3rd year for you older non-educationalists out there) history topics you remember.  Probably not much, but if I told you the title and asked you to research it, you’d come back 5 minutes later with the answers. 
  • And then, of course, there is behaviour and control.   Schools should be places where young people can learn from mistakes, but we prevent them from doing this by putting in place preventative measures and rules.  The bell goes to tell us it’s time to move.  Self-directed learning seems to be avoided for fear of the disruption it would cause in the school.  We ban digital devices because they prevent learning from taking place, or have filters on the internet.  Shouldn’t we be better at monitoring and educating young people when they do something inappropriate?  

I can go on with examples such as these.   This is a negative blog, I’m well aware of that.  It’s unfortunate though that many presenters and writers often go only as far as this.  They show us how inadequate we all are, by putting in place all these barriers.  They highlight the need for us to create a new generation of schools and 21st Century learners.  They go this far and then stop and leave us asking, what should we do about it?  

Some do come up with suggestions, and there are some brilliant examples of good practice out there.   However, the majority are on a small scale, applied perhaps to one year group only.   There are unfortunately many cases where these examples have floundered, in part due to some of the barriers outlined above.  Some of these struggle on due to the hard work, energy commitment and sheer bloody-mindedness required of the pioneers trying to implement and maintain the change. 

I love what Sujata Mitra has to say about education and his belief in self-directed learning.  I mentioned in my last blog how the New Tech High Schools in the States are doing amazing things with Project Based Learning and similar in Scandinavia.  Guy Claxton (look him up) has always been inspiring when writing and talking about the development of habits of learning.

Maybe when I get the time, I’ll do a review of all the brilliant stuff out there.   As I said, there is a lot of good practice across the world.  The trouble is, the change required for us all to re-organise and structure our education system at all levels is just too daunting and potentially politically damaging for governments to take on. 

In my future blogs in this mini-series, I want to propose some principles which if followed may just, over time, push us towards an education system suited to the 21st Century.  There are too many people talking about the barriers and fewer people (unfortunately) coming up with practical solutions.   What is missing I believe, are a set of values/principles to wave as a standard bearer for change and a serve foundation upon which to rest our practical ideas. 

And just to finish on a negative note . . .

One thought on “A 21st Century Imperative: Intro Cont. – Barriers

  1. Great analysis, Armando – when might it be convenient for me to pay you a visit or meet somewhere east of the bridge?


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